Exploding Unicorn by James Breakwell
Exploding Unicorn by James Breakwell Podcast
Crime and Punishment

Crime and Punishment

Newsletter 2022-01-23

The punishment should fit the crime. But what if the crime isn’t really a crime at all? There’s nothing illegal about watching a tablet in bed. In fact, when my kids do it, they’re easier to parent. The next morning, they can’t keep their eyes open, leading to much less backtalk. It’s hard to be a jerk if you’re unconscious. Hard, but not impossible. I’ve said some things while under anesthesia that prove my brain doesn’t have to be working for me to still be the worst. While there’s nothing in the Indiana penal code forbidding tablet use by children in bed, it’s my job to make sure my kids have the energy to make it through the day. That’s not going to happen if they pull an all-nighter watching poorly-made reaction videos. The low quality doesn’t make me nearly as angry as the fact that some twenty-something got rich saying stupid, uncreative comments over someone else’s footage. If you’re going to throw off your circadian rhythm and shorten your lifespan, at least do it over worthwhile content. I’d cut their punishments in half if I caught them secretly staying up late to watch The Mandalorian or Breaking Bad.

The guilty parties are, as always, my eight and seven-year-olds, Lucy and Waffle. They’re either too young to resist temptation or just young enough to still get away with blaming it on their age. If I found my older girls doing it, I’d have no sympathy. They’re far enough in life to properly consider the consequences of their actions. When my twelve-year-old breaks a rule, I know it’s a deliberate and calculated step toward anarchy. When the younger girls do it, however, they’re basically just reverting to how they’d be in nature. Before fourth grade, kids are never more than a step away from going feral. I’ve caught the younger two watching their tablets in bed multiple times. The immediate consequence is that I confiscate the tablets and set up the chargers in my room. The downside is that the kids have to come to me every time they want to watch something during normal daylight hours. I don’t want to see my kids that much. The alternative is to just have them go without screens, but that’s a waking nightmare. I love it when my kids play together, but after about two minutes, playing turns to fighting. I’m honestly impressed by my children’s inability to harmoniously coexist for literally any length of time. While I’d like for them to develop their social skills by interacting with each other, I’d also like to not have a migraine twenty-four hours a day. Screens are a necessary evil to protect the peace and my sanity.

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After I take away the tablets at night, I’m never sure where to go next in terms of discipline. How do you punish a kid when it’s already past bedtime? It’s a little late to send them to bed early. I could do an early bedtime the next night, but by then they will have forgotten why they are being punished, and to be honest so will I. If the issue is poor impulse control in the moment, a delayed punishment won’t do much. The rest of my disciplinary tool box is pretty much empty. After reading 1, 2, 3 Magic, I’ve tried counting the kids. If they do something bad, that’s one. At three, they get a time out for however many minutes they are years old. But again, the kids are already under the covers. I can’t really give them a timeout in the bed where they’re supposed to spend eight hours. The alternative would be to pull them out of bed to give them the timeout, but that would delay bedtime, giving them what they want, and force me to stay up for an extra seven or eight minutes, which is my worst-case scenario. The day they realize their bedtimes are for me, not them, is the day I lose control of this house.

The final option is grounding them. I HATE going this route. As you’ve already guessed, it’s more of a punishment for me than for them. Pulling them off screens for a full day just makes them louder and more volatile. When I was a kid, getting grounded meant I couldn’t go outside and play. That was back in the quaint era when there was just one TV per house and in-person interaction was a desirable recreational activity. I have no idea how any of us survived. Lately, my kids have made a few friends in the neighborhood who stop by after school. It would make my life easier if being grounded meant no to screens but yes to friends to get my kids out of the house, but that would feel too much like letting my children off the hook. The outcome I settled on is banning them from both screens and friends. That means my kids are vocally unhappy and also trapped inside with me. I am not very smart.

The final layer to my disciplinary hierarchy is extra chores. Simply existing in the same house as me doesn’t seem like punishment enough. Instead of giving the kids more free time to fight with each other, I try to direct their extra energy productively. It’s a fine line to walk. Chores shouldn’t be something the kids only do as a punishment. It’s part of being a contributing member of this household. At the same time, if I leave them with their normal amount of chores, it’s no penalty at all. Or, alternatively, it means that every day here is a punishment. I don’t want the kids to believe that, even if it’s true. That’s why punishments are a less than ideal mechanism for redistributing chores. If Lucy and Waffle get an extra night of doing the dishes, one of the other two girls gets a reprieve. Growing up in this house is a zero sum game. Maybe that’s for the best. If your sisters getting in trouble benefits you, you’re more likely to rat them out. I’m cultivating a highly motivated stable of informants.

The most recent time Lucy and Waffle were busted, I went with the suboptimal extra dishes assignment. This was partially to keep them occupied and partially to give them a place to bicker where I could close the door. The chore itself was far from a herculean task. I had already loaded the dishwasher once that day. They just had to take care of what we dirtied at dinner plus some larger pots and pans. Naturally, this ten-minute task took them well over an hour. You always have to factor in fifty minutes for the kids to argue over who’s not doing their fair share. They also had to pick up the toys in their room. Again, this is something they should have been doing anyway. They have yet to see the connection between throwing things on the floor and the later task of being forced to pick them up. It’s almost like there’s a cause-and-effect relationship, but scientists are still studying it to be sure. The end result of their late-night tablet escapade was that their room and the kitchen were both slightly cleaner, even if I had to rewash half the dishes and go back through their room to pick up all the stuff they missed. Mess blindness is real, and my kids have it bad. They have no idea what they trip over when they walk through their room. Probably a ghost with its leg out.

My wife Lola has been considering an alternate approach. Since we seem incapable of stopping illicit post-bedtime tablet viewing all together, and since none of our disciplinary deterrents have been successful, she proposed letting the little two stay up late in their beds. The problem before wasn’t entirely that they were awake. It was what they were doing with those extra hours. Sacrificing sleep to watch a rich YouTuber shout slang phrases over grainy cat videos is hardly the path to a fulfilling or well-balanced life. Lola’s idea is to let the younger girls stay up as late as they want as long as they’re reading books. In theory, this approach would be self-regulating. It’s sort of like letting someone on a diet have as much food as they want as long as it’s carrots or celery. It’s technically possible to eat your way to obesity on crunchy vegetables, but any rational person would give up before that point. Similarly, it’s possible to pull an all-nighter while reading, but I don’t think my kids would ever make it that far. It’s doubtful that The Grinch Who Stole Christmas or Captain Underpants will keep anyone wired until the early hours of the morning. In college, any sort of reading put me to sleep instantly, even when I was supposed to be pulling an all-nighter for a paper I put off until the last minute. So far, reading seems to have the same effect on the kids. The morning after we implemented the new policy, Lucy proudly reported that she had no trouble falling asleep the night before. She had been reading one of my books.

If Lucy and Waffle do end up losing sleep over books, the consequences won’t be that bad. Before a certain grade level, all reading is educational, even if it’s a parent’s guide to surviving the zombie apocalypse. Scratch that. Especially if it’s that survival guide. As for the physiological consequences following a night of book-induced insomnia, I’m sure teachers wouldn’t mind if my kids slept through class on occasion. Lucy and Waffle wouldn’t retain as much that day, but there would also be fewer unexplained fires. Education is all about tradeoffs. Also, if late-night reading sessions caught on with the rest of the class, all the students could fall asleep at once. Then the teacher could conk out, too. I doubt there is an educator in the country who would object to reinstituting an in-school siesta past kindergarten, especially as the grade levels go up. Imagine nap time in high school or beyond. Actually, a lot of my fellow students kept nap time in college. They just did it on their own in their dorms when they were supposed to be in class. Tuition money well-spent.

That’s all well and good assuming Lucy and Waffle are any more inclined to follow the new rules than they were the old ones. As the saying goes, if you give your kids an inch, they’ll take the entire family hostage and hold them for ransom. Lucy wants a tablet, a later bedtime, and a helicopter to anywhere but here. Good luck with that. If books aren’t enough of a diversion and the kids pull off an Ocean’s Eleven-style heist of their tablets from our room, I’ll officially give up. There’s no stopping that level of initiative. After complaining about this conundrum while playing Halo over Xbox Live (What else do adults playing first-person shooters talk about?) a friend suggested that I just shut off the Wi-Fi at night. I have to admit that’s low-key brilliant. I’d love to see the kids’ faces after they break out of our room like Nicholas Cage with the Declaration of Independence only to discover they don’t have Benjamin Franklin’s glasses and can’t read the secret message on the back. You’ll never guess what we watched for our most recent movie night.

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Here’s hoping the temptation of books in bed is enough to bring the situation under control without resorting to Wi-Fi manipulation. That seems like the nuclear option since it would interfere with my ability to stream Netflix. It’s all fun and games until I can’t watch Better Call Saul on the TV in my bedroom. That’s when it’s time to send the kids to military school.

Anyway, that’s all I’ve got for now. Catch you next time.


Exploding Unicorn by James Breakwell
Exploding Unicorn by James Breakwell Podcast
Family comedy one disaster at a time.
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